What is shame?
It is an emotion that everyone experiences. It is what tells us that we are unlovable to our very core and that we are not worth it. It is an emotion that no one wants to feel, one that keeps us from becoming our best selves and one there is no inoculation for. Shame lives in the darkness of our lives and the more light we can shine on it, the further it will retreat for good (pun intended!).
“Shame cannot happen unless we are interconnected with other people whom we trust”, says John Bradshaw in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You. He goes on to make the point that only after a child has developmentally surpassed the first stage of trust versus mistrust (Erickson’s Stages of Development) successfully -- having found trust in others -- can they begin to feel shame. Shame begins from this raw and vulnerable place. It is an evolutionary toll of survival due to not conforming to the social contracts within the groups we belong to.
We are all a part of groups or tribes from the time we are born. These tribes are the key to our survival and there are many requirements for maintaining membership in these groups. Most of the time, these rules and requirements make perfect sense to us because it is the life within which we are immersed. Maybe your tribe is your family of origin, the church you have been a part of your whole life, your school or cohort, mom group, a group of colleagues, group of friends, etc. The reality is that you have gained membership in these tribes because you act, think and do things a certain way---the same way or similar ways that other members in the tribe act, think and do things.
So what happens when someone steps outside of the tribe’s rules and regulations---or begins to even just think differently than those in the tribe? Shame happens. The tribe, whose cohesion and success are built upon the successful incorporation of the rules of the tribe, will shame this person, sometimes even unknowingly. Feeling shame is emotionally painful. So most likely, the person who stepped out of line will jump right back in place once this tribal shaming is experienced. But what happens when the offender doesn’t jump back in line? Have you ever been in this situation? What did you do?
Dr. Mario Martinez, neuropsychologist and author of The Mind-Body Code, articulates the distressing mental health effects of tribal shaming as well as the physical effects on our bodies (anxiety, disease, and inflammation) and how to combat this toxic way of interacting with important people in our lives. It is surprising, although seemingly counterintuitive, that those who inflict shame on each other are usually very connected to each other. Even more surprising is that tribal shaming often does not come from a place of mal-intent but rather of care and concern -- even though this may not be how it plays out. When someone tries to do things differently, the natural course of action is for there to be push-back from the other members of the tribe because the tribe wants to survive. And things need to remain the same for the most part in order for the tribe to be successful. Shame becomes one of the most powerful tools the tribe has to assert control. Unfortunately, many opportunities for personal growth are lost to tribal shaming -- not allowing members of the tribe to successfully experiment with other ways of being. Nothing is more painful than being separated from those who you have called family or home. Therefore, individuals will sometimes give up their life’s hopes and dreams and return back to the tribe just to avoid this painful tribal shame. The tribe will usually take you back if you fail being on the outside, as long as you conform again (and sometimes more rigorously) to their way of acting, thinking, feeling and doing. Sadly, the tribe cannot and will not love you as much when you are in a different place than them but would rather have you stay where you are (in the tribe) because it is what is known and predictable, as well as essential to the survival of the tribe.
To be continued...
*Disclaimer: some few tribal members are actually able to deal with differences among other tribal members and not engage in tribal shaming -- this would be ideal, but unfortunately does not happen often.
How have you dealt with or observed tribal shaming tactics?
Emily Celis, LMFT specializes in adult individual mental health therapy for anxiety, depression and mood disorders, religious transitions, LGBT+ related issues, body image, substance abuse, self-esteem, and gender specific issues. She offers in-person and online services for adults and is also trained to work with couples, families, children and adolescents.